The final season of Dexter has quite a bit of ground to make up. Despite being the long-running flagship of Showtime’s one-hour dramas, Dexter begins its last dozen episodes in an awkward position: The stakes don’t feel very high. That’s the fault of the showrunners and writers, of whom there have been a few over the show’s eight-season run, who allowed Dexter Morgan to slip the noose and avoid real, lasting consequences so many times, it’s hard to remember where the show’s central tension is supposed to lie. “A Beautiful Day” makes clear that there’s no particularly novel or interesting way to do Dexter-as-usual. It’s all been done before.
All of the more robust questions about our blood-spatter expert by day turned blood-spatter artisan by night have been posed. How does someone like Dexter fit into a society in which people crave justice but often find themselves caught between the desire to see that justice exacted and the desire to adhere to the law? How does Dexter make friends? How does he integrate a romantic partner into his twisted life? Can he have a family? Can he be a good father? Is there room for a god in his moral code? Regardless of the larger thematic question a season of Dexter addresses, the answer takes the form of whatever will allow Dexter to go on another season as if nothing ever happened. One could be forgiven for forgetting Rita used to be a character on this show.
But now, the constraints have been removed. Now that showrunner Scott Buck and his team have no reason to worry about conserving fuel for future seasons, there’s no reason not to throw everything interesting left about this world against the wall to see what sticks. Maybe that will happen over the course of these episodes, but nothing in “A Beautiful Day” hints at a larger promise, or suggests that Dexter’s final season will anything other than business as usual. And if there’s a show that can’t survive on its status quo, it’s Dexter.
The issue of most concern is that Dexter Morgan is nearly impossible to root for, relate to, or invest in as a character. Dexter’s only concern is not getting caught. That isn’t a crime in and of itself for a television character, but in Dexter’s case, because he’s avoided being exposed so many times, and because so many others have suffered in his stead, I don’t care at this point whether or not Dexter answers for his crimes. I’m ambivalent toward the idea of Dexter getting caught because he clearly deserves to be in jail by now, but he’s deserved that for the seven seasons prior to this one.
At this stage of the game, there’s no emotional impact to Dexter being caught, convicted, and jailed. What would that mean, anyway? That Harrison would end up in the hands of a more capable, less homicidal parent? That Debra would have at least a shot of cobbling her life back together? That Dexter’s colleagues would be able to do their work better without one of their own thwarting their progress for his own nefarious purposes? To the extent that I’m invested in those outcomes, they would all feel like justice being done too late, the narrative equivalent of a waiter bringing the appetizer after the entrée and dessert have already been served. Harrison’s mother is dead, and his half-siblings barely know him. Deb is now a shell of her former self. Miami Metro has needlessly lost two of its officers, whose only crimes were getting too close to exposing Dexter. For Dexter to get caught now—or killed, for that matter—would feel like the hollowest of victories. It’s tough to get excited about a show in which the threat of the titular character’s ultimate downfall feels toothless.
But to let “A Beautiful Day” tell it, there are still plenty of reason to fear for Dexter. He has rage issues now, you see, because it’s been six months since Deb shot and killed LaGuerta, and she doesn’t want to see or speak to him. That’s making him a bad father, all snippy with Harrison and prone to choking people out for cutting him off in traffic. His behavior is so out of control that Ghost Harry—whose presence seems as inessential as it ever has—barely recognizes his corporeal son anymore. There’s another serial killer on the loose in Miami, this time one who removes chunks of his victims’ brains. A new psychiatrist is assisting the team, Evelyn Vogel, and she sees through Dexter’s façade faster than anyone in history. She has figured out everything already, with a level of specificity that she knows about his (relatively) strict adherence to Harry’s code, but even that reveal inspired more of a sigh than a gasp.
I’m not of the impression that “A Beautiful Day” is necessarily representative of what the show’s final season has in store. It could be, but following a cliffhanger as significant as Deb murdering LaGuerta, the season opener has a lot to accomplish between moving the pieces into place and starting the ball rolling on this season’s story. The episode was much better at the former than the latter, though I’m less interested in Evelyn Vogel and the brain-carving killer as I am in what the writers have planned to bring this meandering story to a satisfying close so that wasn’t cause for concern.
What is cause for concern is that with Debra pushed to extremes, coked up and cavorting with fugitives because she doesn’t care if she lives or dies, and with the episode making clear that Dexter has concluded his life depends on Deb’s participation in it, I’m not clear on what I’m supposed to want to happen. When Deb explains to Dexter, repeatedly, why she doesn’t want to see him again, why the sight of him now disgusts her, why she regrets choosing a monster over LaGuerta, all of it sounds sensible. It sounds reasonable. When I hear it, I want Dexter to respect Debra’s request to leave her alone. The thing about last season’s cliffhanger is that it didn’t just demand that Debra choose between Dexter and LaGuerta, it demanded that the audience choose between Dexter and Debra. I’m now put in a position in which I can’t root for Dexter to get what he wants—to have Debra in his life—without rooting against Debra.
The reason there are so many crime, medical, and legal dramas on the air is because the stakes are inherent. People’s lives depend on law enforcement agents, doctors and lawyers. Dexter once had those stakes, when he crept around in the dark of night, putting down serial killers before they could strike again. So far, those stakes are nowhere to be found in Dexter, and it’s hard to feel like the final season is anything more than the latest installment in the ongoing epilogue of a story that should have ended ages ago.
- My grade is of the benefit-of-the-doubt variety. This episode had so much table setting to do, I’m not yet comfortable declaring the season is off the rails just yet, but this was an inauspicious beginning.
- I’m not completely sure what Charlotte Rampling is doing here, but I’m glad she’s here. The scene in which Evelyn explained her insights on the Bay Harbor Butcher was intriguing, even as it wasn’t nearly as suspenseful as the music built it up to be.
- Miami Metro round-up: Batista is the lieutenant now, Quinn is boffing Batista's sister, LaGuerta has a sturdy bench bearing her name. Deb is working as a private investigator while she’s not snorting coke. That’s about it for now.
- Deb’s password is “fuckingpassword.” Classic.
- As it turns out, the Black Lady Cop is still around, and she even gets lines now. I’m sort of disappointed because I was hoping she was a spectral presence rather than an actual police officer. That way, I figured, Ghost Harry could have a juicy romantic subplot.